The Eiteljorg Collection of African Art
Born and raised in Indianapolis, Harrison Eiteljorg (1903–1997), renowned as a business leader and philanthropist, was also a passionate art collector. In addition to his beloved art collection of the American West, currently housed in his namesake institution, the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, he was also an avid collector of African and Oceanic art. While the Indianapolis Museum of Art displays the majority of his African art holdings, Butler University is proud to own and display several objects from Eiteljorg’s African collection.
In African culture, jewelry not only functions as adornment and symbols of wealth, but also as currency for trade. Jewelry can also signify a person’s social status, such as whether an individual is married or a member of a secret group. Substantial amounts of jewelry are worn by those who wish to display outward signs of affluence and even ethnic affiliation. Necklaces like this one are worn by both men and women to visually indicate their rank in society.
Creator: Unknown, West Africa | Publisher: Bulter University Art Collection | Rights: Butler University | Date Created: 20th century | Medium: Brass
Eiteljorg gifted or loaned a combination of African, Oceanic, and Native American art to Butler University in 1977 and 1978. This varied set of objects was put on display during the fall semester in 1978 in a three-room exhibition space in the Atherton Union for its primary purpose as a teaching collection to accompany academic offerings in art history. Theodore Celenko, Jr., Eiteljorg’s personal curator and buyer at the time, curated this exhibition.
In 1988, as course offerings and university budgets began to decrease, interest in and upkeep of the exhibition space dwindled. Eiteljorg requested that all of the art loaned to the University be returned to him so that he could consolidate the pieces into the collections of the Eiteljorg Museum and the Indianapolis Museum of Art. He was adamant, however, that the University keep the objects that were originally gifted. A total of 32 African art objects remain in Butler University’s collection.
Iron staffs with multiple birds pay homage to Osanyin, the spirit of herbal medicine and divination of the Yoruba religion. Yoruba healers and priests often call upon Osanyin for his healing powers and protection from evil. The Yoruba people believe the power of Osanyin is contained within iron staffs like this one, and staffs are often found on altars honoring the spirit. The symbolism of the multiple birds on the staff refers to a myth in which 16 witches took the form of birds and encircled Osanyin, causing him to turn into a bird as well. The powerful Osanyin, however, became the largest bird, showing his superiority and defeating the evil witches and their sorcery. This staff is missing some of the original birds.
Creator: Yoruba People, Nigeria | Publisher: Butler University Art Collection | Rights: Butler University | Date Created: 20th century | Medium: Iron
African art in the Eiteljorg Collection, created in the western countries of the continent, has both decorative and functional uses. The materials and mediums include wood, brass, iron, ivory, and clay. These objects represent many of the ceremonies and activities that define the historical, cultural, and traditional aspects of West African life.
The exhibition of the Eiteljorg Collection of African Art at Butler University was made possible by generous contributions from Gary Butkus ’88 and Jason Range; Patricia ’82 and Frank ’78 Owings.
For centuries, African art has been living art, part of the fabric of African life. Every item served a purpose, whether as a symbol of royalty, as an emblem of social prestige, as a device for communicating with the spirit world or merely as a utilitarian object. Perhaps it is the social, political, and religious character of African art, even more than inherent aesthetic merit, that intrigues me the most.
Bush Cow/Buffalo Mask
Animals appear on most of the masks made in the Cameroon grasslands area. These wooden masks are used in ritual ceremonies, such as community celebrations and funerals, or during hunting expeditions. Bush cow, or buffalo masks, are a favorite of both the artists and the people who live there. This animal represents authority, due to its great physical power, and buffalo skulls are often found in the homes of village kings and chiefs. This particular mask is worn horizontally on the head and is accompanied by a full and elaborate costume that disguises the wearer underneath. The horns of the buffalo curve upward and inward, almost touching. Flared nostrils and a wide-tooth grin give a dramatic expression to the buffalo mask. Color is used sparingly on similar masks, but usually a dark stain covers the entire object.
Creator: Cameroon People, Cameroon | Publisher: Butler University Art Collection | Rights: Butler University | Date Created: 20th century | Medium: Stained wood and paint